Monday, May 03, 2010

Post-Diluvian Follies: Sloppin’ (or This Is Not My Beautiful House!)

The goal was (sort of) clear: Go through our stuff. Save what could be saved and haul the rest to the curb. Get the house ready for whatever might be next.

I arrived each morning, mentally clocking in for another day in the slop-mines, unloaded my gear (the house was wide open—my stuff traveled with me), suited up, and got to work. My uniform consisted of:
  • The giant plastic yellow bib overalls
  • My clunky work boots
  • The industrial strength rubber gloves
  • My respirator*
I was the cutting edge in post-Katrina chic:

Post-Katrina chic

Day by day, I worked through the house, front to back, item by item, weighing each against a vague and anxiously wavering set of criteria:
  1. How incredibly foul is it?
    • How wet is it?
    • How moldy is it?
    • How stinky is it?
    • Does it make me want to puke?
  2. Is there any hope of de-fouling it?
  3. Do I possibly have anything resembling the time, energy, or emotional resilience to de-foul it?
  4. Is my attachment to the item sufficient to justify the effort of de-fouling it?
  5. Do I intend to use it in the preparation or consumption of food? (Though the floodwater’s toxic chemicals and poo-taint might eventually be scrubbed away, the psychic reverberations were just too nasty.)
  6. Did I actually never really like it in the first place, and though it survived unscathed, I secretly wish it had flooded, and now would be the perfect time to toss it?
It was miserable work. I hauled out sodden carpets, moldy books, funky chairs, old records fused into a single monolithic stack, rusted stereo equipment, kids’ toys, crumbling cabinets, disintegrating sub-flooring, a baby stroller, dead plants, illegible stacks of bills and files, Christmas ornaments, and a million other things. I tossed a wet mattress over the balcony and tumbled washers and dryers out into the back yard. I pushed sad old antiques aside and bagged up blurred photographs for later reckoning.**

The pain was tri-fold:
  1. Dragging bag after bag and armful after armful of sodden, waterlogged crap out to the curb in the sweltering heat was physically exhausting.
  2. Making the thousands of large and small decisions about what stayed and what went was mentally exhausting.
  3. Seeing the stuff of our lives piled in moldy heaps by the curb was just plain depressing.
And there was the smell. It permeated and saturated everything. It soaked into my skin, my hair, my clothes; the muck ground into the grooves of my boots. It basted me. And though my slop-gear kept some of the flood-taint out, it kept all of the sweat in. Sweat pooled in my respirator. (I had to shake it out at regular intervals.) Sweat soaked into my overalls and gloves. Within a day they reeked profoundly—a sour, rotten, human funk. I, the house, and the city stank in unison, commingling our aromas in a rancid Hell’s Potpourri. (Eventually I abandoned the overalls, donning them only for the nastiest of tasks.)

I befouled everything I touched. By the end of the week, Annou’s car smelled like a bear-cave. (We later had it professionally cleaned, but it still stunk. She politely swore she didn’t notice.) In the afternoon, I slimed my trail of ooze back to Fay and Jeff’s for my elaborate decontamination protocol (boots never cross the threshold, funk-attire straight into a plastic bag, funk only washed with funk, etc.). Each day ended with a vigorous Silkwood-style shower as I scrubbed away its accumulated filth and misery.

* I quickly found the gasmask untenable. It was uncomfortable. It was miserably hot. The eye holes clouded up. The giant filter hung like a can of beans from my chin. And it looked silly. My neighbors wore modest (but sufficient) half-face respirators. I looked like I should be holed up in an underground bunker in Idaho with a stack of survivalist magazines writing cryptic manifestos about why federal taxes are a sham. So I went to the Westbank for a half-face respirator of my own. Just like the cool kids.

** My labors were occasionally interrupted by garbled phone calls from my employer who asked how I might feel about relocating to Dallas. (I didn’t know much, but I knew I wasn’t moving to Dallas.)


  1. It's amazing that you can write your story in such a relatable way and with such humor . It makes the experience so much more approachable for those of us who weren't there but really want to understand what happened. Thanks.

  2. I don't know what it says about me, but I laughed out loud at this post. You nailed the whole awful process of having to clean out a house after Katrina--especially the debate about whether or not to save dishes (we decided ours would never, ever be clean enough to eat off of ever again--EVER). And the things that survived the flood that you wish hadn't--for me, it was a bowling ball my husband had been hanging onto for 10 years but had never used. Good stuff.